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Musing on the encyclical: Is declaring a good to be priceless itself good?


The publication of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, has elicited the expected media splurge of enthusiasm that such a prominent figure would engage with such a hot topic.

While papal indications that it’s time to be gentler with our use of resources and fairer with their distribution are naturally welcome to progressives and even many conservatives, the Vatican’s position on some matters do raise a few down-to-earth questions.

For example, in paragraph 13 of the encyclical, Pope Francis asserts that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.”

While a good is commonly defined to mean something of human utility, it does, however, also mean in common usage that the good in question has exchange value.

Yet in paragraph 171, the pontiff sharply criticizes efforts to create a market in carbon credits as a way to rein in pollution. He derides such a system as a “quick and easy solution” and suggests its commitment to the environment may be a bluff.

A bit later he declares that “the environment is one of those good that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces,” proceeding to refer to the market as a “magical conception” consisting of “those who are obsessed with maximizing profits.”

The whole point of a market in carbon credits was, of course, to rein in profit maximization at the cost of unrecognized environmental exploitation. That market itself was often presented as a “moral” innovation, and resisted on the same grounds.

Writing in The New York Times, University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath noted that despite excoriating the idea of a carbon market, the new papal logic champions the idea that polluters be robustly required to pay for their actions , even though there’s a lengthy literature on the inefficiency of the corollary principle that some people have greater means of payment than others. Heath wickedly notes the precedent of the Vatican’s sale of indulgences.

(For the Curia’s view of indulgences, which were most recently on offer in 2013 to those who followed the Catholic World Youth Day on twitter, read here).

The point of a carbon market is that action at a distance can be efficient. Cutting coal use in China will have a greater impact on pollution than doing so in nuclear France, while New York bankers may put a higher value on the beneficent effects of a pristine Borneo forest than do hard-pressed locals. To leverage that one will need some system of exchange.

The pope, as Heath suggests, may simply be expressing the Church’s longstanding view that human desires are basically not legitimate and that we’re here to ora et lavora, to work and pray, as enjoined by the Rule of Saint Benedict.

The encyclical could have termed the environment as a public good, stripping away the in-built scarcity of an ordinary good and leaning on the notion that some things are non-rivalrous and your use of them need not limit mine. My bet is Francis eschewed that choice because public goods often generate free-rider problems. While free riders’ use of a public good does not cause problems for others, their refusal to contribute to its provision is another story altogether.

On that note it’s important to keep in mind that not only do tax dodgers and work shirkers raise the burden on others, but that they may tempt those others to abandon schemes that offer public goods. And it’s worth noting that one of the toughest parts of international climate-change negotiations revolves around whether poorer nations should make some contribution, even if proportionally smaller, rather than be given a waiver while the richer nations who have polluted more foot the bill.

Just how such issues are framed are important, which is hardly news to the scholars in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In essence, Pope Francis wants to address climate change through intentional human action and not mediated market institutions. That’s understandable, but may prove difficult due to the same emotional considerations that foster that stance in the first place.

It turns out that human charity towards victims of disaster is conditioned by the causes of the disaster. New research shows that donations tend to be curtailed when the disaster in question – a flood, for example, or food shortages linked to drought – is attributed to climate change.

It could be that people feel that if the cause was climate change, the inevitable practical solution is to move the survivors rather than help them recover, while if it was just natural bad luck, a more universal sentiment spurs looser purse strings.

The authors  suggest that organizations engaged in appealing for aid might want to portray disasters without allusion to climate change in order to raise more funds for the victims.

It would be ironic if the encyclical led to less sympathy. On the other hand, Pope Francis wasn’t passing the hat to pay for refugee camps, but asking people to change their behavior.

And it’s not just carbon credits for which classical market rules should apply, in his view. Employment is to be protected and intergenerational justice achieved.

It is, we are told, disreputable “doublespeak” to insist on economic freedom as the foundation for rules when real conditions bar many people from actual access to that state.

The irony is that carbon markets and their like were conceived – with no shortage of governance kinks to iron out along the way – as a way to make use of the earth’s resources – and forests – more sustainable while steering social resources like money to precisely the people who so often don’t have that access. 





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